Monday, 2 September 2019

A Wild Journey round the Isle of Mull



Birthe Marie is a Danish fishing boat, built in the 1930s and rebuilt and refitted for charter work by Mark Jardine of Iona.
Mark in his element.
This Summer hasn't been great for sailing in small boats, with days without wind and others when there's been too much, meaning I haven't been out much in the Mariota. Signing up for a Wild Journey on the Birthe Marie seemed a good idea to get in some serious sailing and also to explore the wild Atlantic side of Mull and the various islets and outliers in safety.

On a Wild Journey you'll be spending the entire time out of doors, something I hadn't done since childhood and, to be honest, never for as long as a week. It was challenging at times, but undoubtedly better than sleeping in a confined space with a crowd of folk.

Our only contact with society was a couple of hours in Tobermory half way through the week and strangely it was nice to get back on board and across to pitch tents on Calve Island.


Dusk on Calve Island
We were lucky at the start of the week, with Caribbean conditions, white sandy beaches in little coves and water warm enough for some (not me) to swim.



Our Captain



Having on board Emma, our own dance mistress introduced an element of gentle exercise and hilarity.


Gymnastik auf der Strand

Nice weather meant little wind, but in the second half we got conditions that made me happy to be aboard a sound ship with a wonderful, caring crew in Mark, Neil and David. We had a couple of days when the rain battered the tents all night. On Mull several roads were closed by landsides.

What sounded like a fleet of heavy lorries revving up turned out to be the thundering of a nearby waterfall. Stranger than this was the sound of singing during the night, a magical watery choir of grey seals.

On Ulva, looking across to Gometra
We left Ulva just after this photograph was taken and a couple of hours later were doing eight knots past Staffa in a big rolling swell, wonderful sailing in a boat strong enough to take it.

Looking West to Little Colonsay, gale setting in


Of course the week was about the landscape and sailing, but far more important was the human element. Our group of very disparate people quickly found all sorts of common ground and bonded  into a happy band of semi-competent sail hoisters, rope coilers and even helmsfolk.








The other human dimension was the Isle of Ulva itself. We camped near one of the numerous cleared villages and also made some excursions along the island's remarkable little tracks.

In 1835, when Francis William Clark, a lawyer from Morayshire practising in Stirling bought the island there were about 600 residents in sixteen villages, mainly crofters, but also including boatbuilders, shoemakers and numerous other trades. Many worked in harvesting kelp, which was sheered along the shores, dried in the sun and then carefully cooked to produce alginates that went on to numerous industries elsewhere.

On right a boat noust, on left what's probably the remains of a fish trap

Bracken shows that this land was once in cultivation

From about 1841 cheap imports from the South Atlantic put an end to the kelp industry and Clark responded by progressively clearing "his" land of the tenants who had been there for centuries. Even among the landlord class of his day Clark stood out for his exceptional brutality, personally throwing people out of their homes, burning the roofs off and destroying furniture and effects. Part of the island became known as Starvation Terrace,

"...Where the old and feeble folk cleared from their crofts were placed by Clark, to exist as best they could on shellfish & seaweed till they died."

By 1889 he had reduced the population to 53, by which time he had bought Gometra and Little Colonsay and cleared them as well.

In contrast to elsewhere in Scotland, where ruins of the cleared houses have often been cannibalised for use in dry stane work, the walls of the little houses often still stand, also remains of nousts and fish traps around the shores. The tracks are in remarkable condition, many sections surfaced with smooth stones as a reminder that most ordinary people wore no shoes; the whole an infrastructure representing millions of hours of hard toil by countless generations.I felt a profound sense of grief and anger, tempered by the knowledge that the island has been secured  and hopefully such suffering will never again be inflicted on those who live there.

Photo credits Neil Harvey at Wild Journeys by kind permission

To learn more visit Wild Journeys


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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water